Looking back, living forward

Christmas felt small this year. It was happy and cozy, festive and full of love, but we were the smallest group I can remember in a long while. Elia and her crew stayed in Florence, Nanny's gone and so is Mike, Dad was on call. Fortunately, my aunt Renee and cousin Jeff flew in, but I was still left with a lingering feeling that my family is shrinking faster than it's growing. Parents age, siblings and cousins move, people have fewer children I grew up with a large extended family, and we spent holidays together, parents driving everyone somewhere central like ants returning to their hive. Such seems not to be for my boys, a bittersweet truth. My brother- and sister-in-law have two darling daughters but we're lucky to see them twice a year; once is much more the norm. El will raise her kids in Italy. And so goes life, but watching the old guards age and pass trips me in moments both anticipated and unexpected.

Today, in the morning-after aura of Christmas' poignancy, Mom asked me to clear out the many keepsake boxes under my bed. Most have been stashed there for nearly twenty years: middle and high school journals; elementary school yearbooks; notes from friends and boyfriends; blackened corsages; my college thesis as it progressed; myriad items that must once have meant something dear but whose meaning has been lost in the waves of bygone decades. Who was that boy who kept writing that he loved me? Why did I save multiple fish-shaped sponges, the kind that emerge from dissolvable capsules in little kids' baths? Just how mountainous did we girls think our bangs needed to be? Why on earth did I wear such high-waisted shorts?


Sorting, tossing and deciding to save was a delightful way to spend several hours. I found some of my school work from age 8½, the same age Jack is now. I read him my very candid essay about being the oldest child and he smiled conspiratorially and said he agreed: it's honest in the way of unadulterated childhood expression. Watching his and Ol's dynamics, I can perfectly imagine how I must have felt then and how Jack sometimes feels now. I'm grateful for this reminder to sometimes let the first child feel like your baby once more. Then I showed him my report on the Trapdoor Spider; he seemed less impressed but said he admired that I wrote it as if the Spider were talking with him.


I condensed six boxes into three, filling four garbage bags with trophies, crumbly Valentines roses, old wrapping paper and boxes, letters from camp friends I no longer recall and every pamphlet about Mary Lou Retton and the Chicago Cubs under the sun.

I thought about the girl I was, the woman I've become and the sometimes enormous gulf between our memories of certain times and the "facts" of those periods as presented by written evidence. I don't remember caring much for high school, I don't remember feeling peaceful or assured during it. But photos, sweet nothings written and folded into origami parcels easily passed hand to hand in school halls, yearbook messages and glittery signs from school dances suggest that there was more happiness and friendship than I tend to recall. Seemingly endless cards from Mom, Dad, Nanny, Renee, aunts, friends, pen pals, mentors remind me of the great crowd on whose support I've often been lucky to depend.

Nothing is perfect, and I've had my share of pits and loss and darkness and worry. But I arrived here, where I am today, and I like this person. I like my family, even with its generous shake of eccentricity and foible. I like the people in my life, even as I've learned that those on whom you can really count and lean are fewer and further between than youthful idealization once led me to believe. I've learned that while grand goals and courage will help you reach achieve great things, grand expectations of others often lead to disappointment. Support is essential but so are a respect for and reliance on self.


Tonight, as Mom, Dad and Renee ate tamales, the boys slurped chili and T and I inhaled barbecue shrimp, I considered how very much easier raising kids would be with all this family around all the time. In the absence of that though, I'm grateful for the relationships we've all forged and maintained across the miles. And I hope that as I encourage the boys to individuate and ultimately live their own lives, they one day sit in a pile of memories and think back over how loved and supported they always were.